In this day and age, nearly every level of society is in need of greater awareness about the common resources that sustain us, however sustainability education in schools has gotten special attention because it is a concrete place to start. Want to spread awareness about something? Put it in the curriculum. In Illinois, there are some basic environmental science education requirements that relate to sustainability. For example, students in middle school must know the difference between a renewable and non-renewable resource and be able to name examples of each.
I know this from my days of working for SCARCE – an organization based in DuPage County, IL – that gives environmental presentations to schools all over the county. While kids always got a kick out of our recycling displays and energy bike, teachers especially appreciated the fact that we aligned our presentations with the state education standards.
One of our coolest interactive activities was the Watershed Model (pictured) – a plastic model of a typical Illinois suburban town. We used this to teach on the state-required topics of pollution and water resources. Piece by piece the students fill the town with buildings and activities: schools, homes, farm animals, pets, cars, a factory, and a water treatment plant. Near each item some “pollution” is placed: chocolate sprinkles are cow patties and dog droppings, kool-aid powder is sewage, soy sauce is oil on the roads, and oatmeal is litter in the park. Once the town is filled properly with life and pollution, students create a mini rainstorm by spraying water on the plastic model. As the water flows down plastic slopes into the town’s streams, the central lake’s color turns from crystal clear to a cloudy brown. Gross!
The Watershed Model workshop is one of SCARCE’s most engaging classroom activities and it’s not just reserved for the kids. Plenty of adult groups go through the exercise as well and many have never considered the impact of their dog’s poop washing into rivers or their local water treatment plant overflowing. But when SCARCE presents to adult groups, the Q & A sessions inevitably turn to a different kind of pollution issue: global warming.
Teaching climate change with the watershed model would actually be a lot of fun. You could put a big plastic bag over the town and have students breath into holes in the bag creating “carbon dioxide emissions.” Some kids could represent normal carbon cycle emissions and others would be coal plants or livestock. You could make the whole exercise into a skit: fossil fuels vs. trees! But I never acted on these ideas as it was SCARCE’s policy not to bring up climate change during our presentations as it held too much political baggage. If it did come up in Q&A we would often give a generic response about carbon emissions being a pollution problem just like any other.
Since working at SCARCE I’ve been keenly aware of how various environmental groups – especially those traditionally focused on non-climate topics – speak about climate change. In a year when climate issues have grabbed nearly all of the public’s attention on the environment, all groups have had to give the topic some thought.
For Eco-Coach, an environmental awareness group that targets homes and businesses, climate change is a part of every presentation. Cindy Olson, one of the eco-coaches, says climate change education is a must, especially for businesses. “Climate change is a risk to our clients depending on their sector and specific regulatory climate. And if we did not consider the possible impacts we would not be doing our job,” she says. While SCARCE steers away from climate change because of politics, Eco-Coach simply rejects the politics. Cindy states firmly, “climate change is not political; it is a large risk to doing business now and in the future.”
Both groups have tailored their response to the worldwide buzz about climate to their specific audiences and mission, but ultimately climate change isn’t something that can simply be inserted or left out of a presentation or curriculum. It is a single environmental problem that will be most effectively addressed by a change in mindset – namely a more inherent awareness of how every action affects the air, water, and soil. And that’ll take an intentional redirecting of cultural norms across institutions. Teachers changing curricula, eco-coaches changing business practices, ministers spreading green messages to their communities, marketers selling low-consumption lifestyles, and so on. The key will be empowering these individuals in their professional capacities to do this.